Atmosphere: Relaxed and friendly.
Price range: Inexpensive; most entrees from $2.50 to $4.50.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Special facilities: Accessible to the handicapped; high chairs.
Credit cards: Visa/Bank Americard, Master Charge.
Reservations: A good idea on weekends.
"You gotta be kidding," said my husband when I told him one recent Sunday that we were brunching at a restaurant called WonDerFul. Well, I wasn't, and two hours later as he ate his four Ho-Tze, he agreed with me that this modest Chinese establishment in Arlington lives up to its name.
WonDerFul, which is in one of those faceless little shopping centers along Glebe Road, definitely has a downhome Chinese look about it. Hand-written signs in Chinese characters and English on orange and green poster paper are propped up in the plate glass windows, advertising "Today's Specials" and "Sunday Lunch Buffet."
It was the latter we had come for - lured by the prices, $3.95 for adults, $2.50 for children under 12, and all you can eat. More expensive than eggs and popovers at home, but certainly more exciting.
When we arrived at 11:45 a.m., there were a few families, most of them Asian, helping themselves at a linen-covered buffet in the center of the dining room. We were ushered to a table for four and invited to stack our cold-weather hats, coats, scarves, etc., anywhere. We found an empty chair for them, and our two sons, liberated from their snowsuits, scampered off to check out the enormous fish tank populated by half a dozen sizable carp and other exotic fish.
We ordered Cokes for the children, then walked over to the buffet to have a look and to help ourselves. For appetizers, there were egg rolls, which proved to be very tasty; Ho-tze, or small beef-filled pastries, and chicken wings done crisply in soy sauce and spices. We sampled liberally and decided the winner was the Ho-tze.
About halfway through the appetizers, our waiter brought us soup - a thick, and very good, egg drop soup with corn.
The boys never got any further. Soup and appetizers filled them up and they returned to the fish tank. But my husband and I pressed on - back to the buffet, dipping into the main dishes: stir-fried fish with carrots and bamboo shoots, meat balls with cellophane noodles and Chinese cabbage and a pork fried rice highly seasoned with curry.
The finale was something called Chinese pound cake, a steamed bread made with honey and brown cane sugar. It was very light and not too sweet, good with the tea that came with the buffet.
Alan Chow, who along with other members of his family, has operated the restaurant for about a year, said the bread is typical of northern China and his family's home of Tientsien. Wheat, not rice, he explained, is the staple of the northern Chinese diet.
Most of the dishes available at WonDerFul on week days and for dinners are from Szechuan and Peking recipes, Chow said.
Prices on the regular menu seem reasonable: hot and sour soup for 70 cents; beef Szechuan, $4.50; Moo Shi pork, $4.25; Kung Pao chicken, $4.50; and Mandarin fried noodles $3.95, and so on. WonDerFul also offers whole fish done several ways, for about $6.50, and a whole Peking duck for $13.95.
WonDerFul has an added attraction - video-taped Chinese movies imported from Taiwan. They're shown in color on a large TV suspended over the fish tank. No translations are supplied, however, so we watched some glamorous looking Asians playing what seemed to be a mean game of mah jong without understanding any of what happened next.
Chow was kind enough to translate the name WonDerFul for us. It means, said, Plenty (Won), Discipline (Der) and Good Luck (Ful). We agreed we had eaten planty, and it was our good luck to have found the place. But the only thing the slightest bit disciplined," or at least circumspect about our meal was the check - $14.25 without the tip.